NORTH CENTRAL REGION
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|Small farmers, such as those raising hogs on pasture rather than confinement, want more support from extension and other agricultural educators. |
Photo by Jerry Dewitt.
Living near Bloomington, Ind., presented a golden opportunity for Jim Luzar as he evaluated the future of his family's 182-acre corn-and-soybean farm. Bloomington, he learned, was one of the best horticultural markets in the Midwest, close behind Madison in demand for organic products.
As a result of a real-life exercise conducted for a group of Indiana Extension agents, Luzar is poised to overhaul his central Indiana farm by growing organic vegetables and marketing them to Bloomington residents. The exercise, run by Craig Dobbins of Purdue University with Steve Bonney of the Indiana Sustainable Agriculture Association, among other cooperators, was part of a SARE-funded professional development project (PDP). PDP offers learning opportunities to a variety of agricultural Extension and other field agency personnel nationwide.
"I hadn't really perceived the marketing location as an advantage," says Luzar, who is also an Extension educator. Participating in a small-farm assessment -- where Extension agents reviewed his farm goals and any constraints to achieving those goals -- really opened his eyes.
"In Extension, I've been on the other side several times, but when you go through something like that yourself, you have a different outlook," he says. "It really illuminated different opportunities."
The Indiana project emulated a Missouri SARE PDP workshop held in conjunction with the 1996 Small Farm Today Conference and Trade Show held in Columbia, Mo. The PDP workshop drew more than 50 Extension educators from eight states who wanted to learn about quality of life-improving, sustainable strategies for families on small farms such as Jim Luzar's and were asked to recommend new, sustainable strategies.
In Luzar's case, he was looking to diversify. He considered livestock, but was drawn by the profit potential he saw in Bloomington for vegetables. An organic vegetable farm would have less impact on natural resources, and he wanted to involve a family member in the farm, an opportunity a horticultural operation could provide.
The Missouri case studies were based on similar, real-farm situations. Workshop organizers assigned eight such scenarios to Extension teams, aiming to raise their awareness of how many profitable, environmentally friendly and family-friendly options can exist on small farms.
"A farm is not just a production factory, it's a way of life, a place where families live and raise kids," says John Ikerd, an agricultural economist and coordinator of the PDP workshop. "We want Extension to look at the farm and the family as a whole and try to help people manage that whole to get a more desirable quality of life."
Farmers earning less than $50,000 in annual revenue per year constitute the majority of farmers, even though they produce far less than their larger, often corporately owned, counterparts. Strategies for small farmers abounded at the conference and the PDP workshop.
Nationally known small farm experts such as Joel Salatin from Virginia and Andy Lee from North Carolina presented information on market gardening and pasturing livestock, including hogs and poultry. Others offered information on controlling insects in vineyards using pheasants and incorporating poultry litter and other organic amendments into row-crop operations.
The Extension teams reported back to the PDP group with their findings and recommendations for the eight hypothetical farm case studies. Their presentations went over with a bang. Asked to evaluate the session, participants ranked the program 8.5 out of 10 for improving knowledge and 8.8 out of 10 for "usefulness." A full year later, participants filling out a post-conference survey were asked to evaluate the extent to which they had actually used what they had learned. They rated their "extent of use" at 7.76 on a scale of 1 to 10.
"It was a very positive response -- they really took it seriously," Ikerd says.
Participants came from all over the North Central region. Bonney, president of the Indiana Sustainable Agriculture Association, found the seminar so useful he incorporated it into the PDP project in his state.
The program "addresses the concept of appropriate enterprises and complementary enterprises on a farm," says Bonney, who took Ikerd's approach one step further by taking the group of Extension professionals to Luzar's farm to help the owner to assess his goals. "Once on the farm, we see 'people issues' and 'money issues' that generally don't get into whole-farm planning, which usually starts and stops with conservation."
Shelly Gradwell, who works in the Iowa Extension system, found what she learned in Missouri "perfect" to meet the needs of small growers in Iowa. She gleaned information on community-supported agriculture (CSA) and direct marketing that she later published in a resource guide.
The 80-page guide has been distributed to about 100 growers requesting information about alternative strategies on small farms, fulfilling an obvious need in Iowa. In one year, the number of CSA farms in Iowa increased from four to 22.
"The speakers John [Ikerd] brought in were ideal to get resource information, tips and ideas for small-scale producers," Gradwell says. "It was exactly what I was looking for that wasn't available in Iowa."
The Missouri group aims to dispense information on small-farm opportunities to an Extension system that often compartmentalizes itself into a variety of specialty areas rather than looking at the whole-farm picture and a farm family's quality of life.
"The people we're trying to work with are those who see their primary roles as working with people, and their expertise is just one thing they're trying to provide," Ikerd says. "Right now, the number of agents who work that way are far smaller than the number of families who work that way."
For Luzar, the quality of life assessment may go far toward helping his family achieve its objectives.
"In the '80s, farmers only looked at the bottom line, worrying about profitability," he says. "As we looked at my family's objectives and values, we pretty much tabled that. If I go into marketing, I could work with people, meet new people, it would be environmentally friendly and have some real income potential." -- Valerie Berton
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|Marjorie Major demonstrates her cattle-watering system to agricultural educators who visited her grazing operation in Hinesburg, Vt. |
Photo by Debra Heleba.
As recently as 1994, many land grant universities and USDA agencies still considered sustainable agriculture a "fringe" concept advocated by organic producers and people who had little concern for the economic realities of farming. Since then, however, producers and the government agencies that serve and advise them have made significant progress in adopting and advocating sustainable agriculture practices and systems.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing, says Kate Duesterberg, who coordinated a New England-wide SARE project to help change the way federal and state agencies that serve farmers learn about and teach sustainable agriculture.
Extension personnel, Duesterberg says, often were stuck in a traditional paradigm that kept them in the "expert" role. Their training and education led them to believe the answers to most, if not all, production problems could be found in university-based, scientific research, and their jobs were to mete out this information to farmers.
Duesterberg is among a growing group of people who believe sustainable agriculture requires a different kind of knowledge-building.
"We realized farmers themselves held a tremendous amount of knowledge about sustainable farming methods based on their own experiences," says Duesterberg, program coordinator for the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Vermont. "We knew we had to encourage agencies to engage in more participatory learning and teaching."
A project planning committee decided that, in addition to emphasizing sustainable production methods, they would figure out better ways of working with producers as co-learners and facilitators. As a result, they brought Extension and other agency field personnel to successful farm operations throughout New England. They also invited educators and producers to a region-wide conference and several sub-regional trainings, creating opportunities for them to learn from each other about holistic approaches to farm planning and decision-making.
One such method was developing "study circles" in which participants learn and discuss specific issues, striving to understand the values underlying all sides. At the conference, study circles served as the basis for discussing the complex and often emotional issues around sustainable agriculture.
Measuring gradual changes in attitudes, of course, is not as easy as counting new greenhouses or milking parlors. But Duesterberg says she can see progress over the three years of the project. For example, the 1997 New England Vegetable and Berry Conference included workshops devoted to organic production, integrated pest management practices and biological control. Eric Sideman, director of technical services for the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, helped plan the conference -- something he says he never would have been invited to do 10 years ago.
Sideman, who serves as a member of the New England PDP planning committee, also has noticed that Extension technical publications now include much more information on nonchemical pest control and advice for organic growers."
Years ago, you would have just seen a list of registered pesticides," he says.
The number of Northeast farmers embracing management-intensive grazing has grown dramatically in the last few years, along with the number of certified organic dairy farmers. Most importantly, sustainability has become an integral goal for farms, rural communities and the agencies that serve them, Duesterberg says.
During four farm tours held in the region, agency staff visited farms practicing innovative and successful ways of growing and selling food.
The result of events like those are hard to quantify, admits Tim Griffin, sustainable agriculture specialist for University of Maine Extension and a member of the project's planning committee, but he thinks the benefit of working directly with farmers can only help.
On the tours, Griffin visited organic soybean operations and a northern New Hampshire farm where the farmer processes his own barley and soybeans. Some of what he picked up during the tours he was able to share later with Maine farmers, and believes that kind of information-sharing is one cause of greater soybean production in the state. The commodity jumped from 20 acres in 1996 to around 700 in 1997 as farmers learned to grow more of their own grain to feed livestock.
The PDP project also likely stimulated more on-farm research, as opposed to the old university-to-Extension-to-farm pipeline, Griffin says. More of his work now includes results from farm-based research.
"More farmers are saying to us, 'If you want to do research, you'll have to include us, because we're the ones the research is for,' " Griffin says. "That's just what we want them to say."
For some states, like tiny Rhode Island, which lacks resources for sustainable agriculture training, the opportunity to learn more was a boon.
"A couple of conferences I attended simply wouldn't have been a possibility for me without the SARE project," says Karen Menezes of the Rhode Island Center for Commercial Agriculture, also a key project planner.
The project has meant more than just dollars to Menezes. "It's been an open door for me to meet agriculturally connected people throughout New England," she says. "For the most part, if things don't happen right here, you don't hear about it. Now I'm in a better position to call, to ask for help for a problem we can't resolve here at the university."
Still in progress are a series of fact sheets that will explain the most current information for farmers seeking to learn about grazing watering systems, direct marketing, biological control in greenhouses and other issues.
"What we hope is not only to provide additional technical information, but to get people to think, to work closely with their communities to come to a more sustainable way of producing and distributing food," Duesterberg says. "It's our job to push people toward a new way of thinking." -- Susan Harlow
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|Extension educators examine a mix of forages to determine it's nutritive value for livestock. |
SARE file photo.
At first blush, the term management-intensive grazing can seem like a misnomer. Foraging animals led to grass will do what comes naturally, so where does management fit in?
There is a lot more to management-intensive grazing (MIG) than meets the eye, however. Farmers and ranchers need to learn how to raise forage for maximum nutrition for their livestock without overgrazing pastures, putting the need for proper management front and center, says Alan DeRamus, professor of agronomy and animal nutrition at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette.
"We insist on using that term, instead of intensive rotational grazing," DeRamus says. "We want the emphasis to be on management. That's where the highest degree of success can be found."
DeRamus ought to know. With the help of a SARE professional development grant, he's put together an MIG program for Extension agents, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field specialists and other educators.
One of the first such trainings below the Mason-Dixon Line is helping to kick off a quiet revolution in Southern cattle and dairy farming. Two Extension agents who attended DeRamus' program are adapting some of what they learned about MIG in farmer training sessions in Florida. One central Florida program recently drew about 200 ranchers.
The magic of MIG lies in the numbers, DeRamus says. For instance, he says it's pretty easy to prove, even to resistant farmers, that most Deep South pastures -- with 30,000 to 50,000 pounds of beef per acre per day during the long growing season -- will increase utilization of forage from 30 percent in conventional grazing to 70 percent in MIG.
"That means 30 to 50 cows per acre, and that was an unheard-of figure before intensive grazing came along," he says.
Producers need to keep moving animals, leaving them in a pasture just long enough to eat the nutritious new growth, then removing them before they can damage the forage beyond the point at which it can regenerate. Sometimes that can mean turning a herd into a paddock for as little as an hour a day.
Talk about intensive management.
"It's all about knowing the kinds of forages you have on your farm, knowing what kinds you want, knowing your stock and what it likes to eat, knowing how many paddocks your pastures can be divided into, and managing resources like fencing and water availability," DeRamus says. "It's good management, pure and simple."
Trouble was, nobody was encouraging Deep South farmers how to think along those lines before DeRamus set up his training sessions. Amazed at how large cattle producers in Iowa and Missouri had reclaimed played-out pastures and increased their herd sizes, DeRamus wanted to see the system at work in his region.
"I thought surely we should be able to get even better results here in the South, with 55 to 90 inches of rainfall each year and a 300-day growing season," he says.
Survey results from the Midwest, where MIG has gained a following, cited farmers' lack of knowledge about proper grass farming as their primary reason for resisting adoption. Once Extension and NRCS personnel in those areas had gained enough expertise to pass on, many farmers chose to give it a try.
DeRamus figured the same would hold true for Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. "Ranchers and farmers were looking for someone to consult with about everything they'd need to know to get started in MIG," he says. "The Extension Service and NRCS people were just behind the curve."
So he set out to educate the experts. The SARE grant helped him hire the staff necessary to put together a series of training seminars and workshops that started in 1995. The staff included a soils agronomist and economist, an NRCS range specialist, a local power-fencing expert and an instructor from the Noble Foundation, an organization devoted to cattle and grazing concerns. The grant also helped pay for ads in Grassland Farmer magazine announcing the series.
Those ads attracted the attention of David Solger, director of the Washington County, Fla., Extension Service. Solger, who works in Chipley, 50 miles north of Panama City, said he was overjoyed to learn of a MIG workshop taking place in the Florida Panhandle.
"I had been hearing a lot about management-intensive grazing," Solger says. "I knew of farmers in my area interested in it, but I needed to know a lot more myself before I could tell them whether it would work in Florida or not. When I heard about the program Alan put together, I didn't waste any time."
Solger said he "thoroughly enjoyed" the presentations and discussions on ruminant nutrition, nutrient cycling, the basics of forage growth, economics and strategies for year-round nutrition and fence-building at the workshop. The value of the information convinced him to plan his own workshop to take place in March 1998.
"You wouldn't believe the amount of interest there is around here," Solger says, referring to another participant in DeRamus' workshops whose MIG seminar in central Florida brought about 200 ranchers.
Solger remains frustrated by what he perceives as lingering resistance in Extension to embracing MIG, despite such "amazing" interest. "It may just be that people don't like to deal with anything new," he says. "It's just like a rancher who'll say, 'Well, that's the way my Daddy raised cattle and it's good enough for me, too.' "
Solger hopes training Extension and other ag educators in MIG will help change anti-sustainable agriculture mindsets. Grazing systems, which can work so well in cutting producer costs with much less environmental impact and potentially more time for family and community, should be a great place to start.
"What Alan does in his workshops -- and what I intend to do in mine -- is show farmers and ranchers why they've got to be grass farmers first, and then cattlemen," Solger says. "If they take care of that first part, the second part will just come naturally." -- David Mudd
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|Extension training in the Pacific Islands includes a stop at a Hawaiian farm growing taro, a potato-like island staple. |
Photo by Jerry Dewitt.
When a fruit and vegetable farmer in Guam asked Bob Barber, a University of Guam Extension economist, for help in assessing his operation's profit potential, Barber was happy to comply. He involved a group of Extension agents participating in a SARE-funded professional development project, getting their input in the budgeting process and, in turn, teaching them new ways of working with farmers.
The group helped farmer Bernard Watson -- who, with 17 acres, is one of the largest fruit and vegetable producers on the small Pacific Island -- analyze his costs and returns on one acre of papaya. They calculated labor, inputs and equipment against Watson's gross revenue and found he earns between $20,000 and $40,000 annually, depending on the presence of diseases or typhoons.
After assembling the data and developing a budget for Watson, the group later presented their findings at an annual Guam Small Business Conference.
"They were very interested in how to divide up production phases and how to actually interview farmers," says Barber, a co-collaborator on the SARE project led by former Hawaiian-based Extension educator Kathleen Delate. "They wanted to have budgets for the crops their constituencies are producing."
Information on assembling profitable budgets was just one part of a professional development project that extended beyond Guam to include Pacific Islands from Hawaii to Micronesia. The multi-year project covered livestock and aquaculture as well as agriculture unique to the islands -- fruit plantations, market gardens growing taro and agroforestry operations centering on herbs like kava kava -- with a sustainable twist.
The training, which took place between 1995 and 1997, represented some of the first lessons for Pacific Island Extension staff in how to help farmers raise profitable crops or livestock with minimal impact on their fragile, unique ecosystem.
"Overall, it's hard to farm in the Tropics because pests are present year round, soils are poor and there are steep slopes as well as typhoons and tropical storms," Delate says. "This group was committed to working together toward sustainability in the Pacific, which had never happened before."
After the training ended, many participants incorporated what they had learned into their day-to-day work, Delate says. Seven of the 20 agents held workshops on various sustainable agriculture practices, and several regularly used financial management data collection sheets Barber distributed to monitor farm costs or develop farm budgets in their districts.
While many producers on the smaller islands excluding Hawaii and Guam continue to practice what Delate calls "traditional" farming, more are beginning to join their larger neighbors in over-using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Instead, Delate and a team of Extension educators from the University of Hawaii, the University of Guam, the College of Micronesia, Northern Marianas College, American Samoa Community College and Palau Community College hope to turn the tide back and encourage farmers to adopt some of the sustainable methods their fathers and grandfathers practiced.
"Many older farmers have been practicing modified forms of sustainable farming practices all their lives," says Ray Macduff, who runs a crop demonstration farm in the Mariana Islands. "We are trying to modify these techniques into a more productive commercial system.
"Farmers struggling on tiny parcels plagued by tropical weather and diseases need alternatives to the prohibitive cost of importing fertilizers and pesticides from the U.S. mainland. One low-cost technique is to apply more local inputs like tree prunings and manure compost to amend the coral, very alkaline soils.
Most of the training took place outdoors, where a group of about 20 Extension agents and Natural Resources Conservation Service representatives saw firsthand how an organic market garden, Watson's fruit plantation, aquaculture, agroforestry operations and the Marianas demonstration farm can reduce inputs.
In Hawaii, for instance, the group learned how a taro farmer applied composted hog manure from a nearby hoop house mixed with macadamia nut shells to meet all his fertility needs. Taro, a potato-like root, remains a major food source in the Pacific Islands. On the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the group learned about biologically based pest management of herb, vegetable and fruit pests.
In Pohnpei, participants got their hands dirty. Extension educator Jackson Phillip led the participants in planting kava kava in a lowland forest as part of a farm demonstrating appropriate species for the ecosystem.
On Guam, agents working with Extension horticulturist Frank Cruz measured the presence of nitrates, a soluble form of nitrogen that can contaminate ground and surface water, on a tropical fruit and vegetable farm. After agents collected leaves and extracted sap to run through portable test kits, they found the farmer did not need to apply as much fertilizer. The finding helped convince the farmer to reduce his number of fertilizer applications, Cruz said.
The group also toured an aquaculture demonstration site "designed to tolerate the harsh salt environment of the islands while keeping the set-up expenses and labor to a minimum," says David Crisostomo, a Guam Extension educator.
The demonstration featured tilapia and ornamental fish such as swordtails swimming in a 12-foot pool whose filtering system contains many locally available materials such as plastic ring tops used in drink six-packs. Such recirculating aquaculture systems meet new regulations governing the release of effluent to prevent the introduction of exotic species into Pacific Island watersheds. Discharge water from the demonstration system was recycled as irrigation and fertilizer in garden plots.
Aquaculture can bring hefty returns. Raising fish at the demonstration site cost between $1.50 and $1.75 a pound, while the average selling price for tilapia in Guam runs about $2.50 a pound. In the last year, Crisostomo reports about 10 new aquaculture operations in Guam alone.
"The importance of sustainable agriculture in the Pacific can be summed up by the bottom line," Macduff says. "By growing our own fertilizer and pesticides, we reduce -- if not eliminate -- the need for costly commercial inputs, resulting in a net gain for the farmer." -- Valerie Berton